I had an interesting conversation on Lothar’s blog with somebody who claimed to be a biologist. He said that we really don’t know when an organism becomes human, and that conception is merely another stage in development, much likethe simple bodily creation of egg and sperm cells. When I pointed out to him that being a toddler was also a stage of development, he agreed. I then asked him what he thought of abortion, and he said he found the issue complex and that we should probably give more and more weight to the life of the developing pregnancy it develops.
I find this whole line of thought quite bizarre. How on Earth can we reasonably say that the organism formed at conception that WILL develop into a fully grown human is the same as sperm or an egg? That’s like saying that hydrogen and oxygen are the same as water, but trying to survive on liquid hydrogen would probably make the difference quite clear. Sure it’s “another stage in development”, but it’s the stage where the being that will eventually become the adult is formed. If he flat-out admits that toddlers are also a stage in development, then what exactly is his problem with killing toddlers? Distaste? Brain waves? Consciousness? All of these standards are rife with massive problems.
More interesting was this thought experiment that popped up: There is a fire in an IVF clinic. You can either save a hundred frozen embryos or one human janitor. Who do you save?
My only response to this is that people’s natural response to save the janitor doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the most moral response. Morality is what we SHOULD do, not what we WOULD do. The fact is that giving a face to the janitor humanizes him, and the fact that he has a family who cares about him (presumably) also affects our judgment. But intuitions can be wrong, and our ideas of right and wrong should be grounded on something other than instinct, which can do little more than point us in the right direction sometimes. It’s no excuse for a fully formed moral theory grounded in logic.
Still, while logically the answer should be to save as many people as possible the cognitive dissonance is troubling, though perhaps simply because it tells us something sad about human nature.
The reason I was so unimpressed with Lothar and other’s “complex” position on abortion is that you really can’t go halfway with this. If you do not support a full ban against abortion, you are saying that mass genocide of an entire class of people should be legal, and no matter how limited you want it to be you’re still saying that sometimes it’s not wrong to kill innocent humans. There’s no halfway on this issue – life and death is a clear dividing line, not a gray area.